Things I Would Save

Writer April Wolfe finds an odd job cleaning out hoarder houses. And on her first assignment, she finds trash, pants, scrapbooking supplies...and a history of the woman who lives there.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Found" episode. We're exploring stories where people find exactly what they are not looking for. Our next guest, April Wolfe, is a SNAP favorite. She's a writer in L.A., and a couple of years ago, April decided that she needed a change. She moved to Connecticut, said goodbye to her friends, goodbye to her home, and goodbye to her boyfriend.

APRIL WOLFE: I packed up all of my things and took only what could fit into my Honda Civic, and then left a very small box of photos and memorabilia in a friend's house. I'm not a sentimental person. I, perhaps, thought that I was going to come back and get them, but I was not totally sure. I stayed in this cabin there in Connecticut, and what followed was a two month long intense courtship with the man I love through Internet, letters and e-mails. Occasionally, I would call this guy. We would talk on the phone about mundane things, but there was so much in between us. I ended up taking this strange job. The job was cleaning out hoarder houses. I didn't know anything about what it would even entail. All I knew is thaat I was given, like, a mask to put over my face and a little pitchfork and, like, a shovel with some trash bags. So my boss gave me a little bit of lead in. He got us to the house and it was a fire hazard. There was so much contaminated waste there. They would have to demolish the house if someone didn't come in and clean it up. Barbara lived in that house. She didn't want outside people coming in to take care of it, but it was necessary. So we have three hours while they took her out to go in and clean out as much as possible. Our boss said we don't want to keep anything.

There was another guy I was working with as well. His name was Mo and he was 70 years old. And he was also the kind of guy who would pull Werther's Originals out of his pockets and give them to me. The second that we tried to open up the door, we couldn't. We could only wedge it open, like, maybe three or four inches. There was trash everywhere and so we spent maybe like 30 minutes just trying to get the front door open, which - a person lives there. The smell when we walked in was drenched in rotting food. It's really just a sea of furniture and scrap booking supplies. There were, like, these huge, like, cave spiders that were living, like, all along the walls. The second that we took off the masks, our faces were just covered in soot, completely black under the mask. And then we would have to actually get new masks every 30 minutes because they were just getting destroyed by the air in there. Mo was in the kitchen. He would scream out to me, are we having fun yet? One of the things that was frustrating - so many of the things that were piled on the floor were organizational cabinets.

Also there were so many pairs of black pants that had been ordered. You can see, like, a QVC tag attached to them. Apparently, Barbara had really, really bad knees and that was one of the reasons why all of these things started stacking up on top of each other. Because what would happen is, Barbara had gained a bit of weight, and whenever she would get something, if she dropped it, then it would just fall on the floor and then she couldn't pick it up. So she would order more things and then if she dropped those, it would fall on the floor and she couldn't pick it up. And so what ended up happening is that layers and layers of her life had been dropped on the floor, stepped on and then covered until the floor was maybe 3 feet higher than it should have been. One of the things that I was wondering about was - you know those little grabby things that you can hold in your hand and, like, pick something up that's far away? Just as I was thinking about, like, well, why doesn't Barbara have one of those things? I ended up actually uncovering like 10 of them that had also been dropped. It became this, like, layers of sadness and sadness for me. And so I had been - being very careful and I had had, like, a little basket set aside where I was trying to save the good things that I thought for her. One of the couches that I saw, I lifted up. The couch was actually on top of another couch, by the way. And I saw these little eyes peeking out at me and, like, this matted white fur. And I realized that there was a cat in the room. She was emaciated.

You know, after we quarantined the cat I just - I got a little bit mad at Barbara. I just - I said screw it, Barbara. I'm just going to clean everything out. There is no being gentle. I'm just going to throw it all away. And I was, like, sweeping the whole hordes of things into these giant black trash bags and just tossing them out. We took a break and I noticed that there was a small trailer that was outback. It was probably about 8 by 10. And it was rusted out and the wheels were falling off of it. And Mo looked at me and he said Barbara used to live there. She used to live in that trailer. And I was like, what? 'Cause everything that I had heard about Barbara was that, you know, she was over 300 pounds. There was no way that she could just live in that trailer. And then he said there had been a fire in her house and so while the house was being repaired for several years she lived in this small rusted out trailer. Every single thing that I learned about her just becomes, like, more and more of a mystery. Like, who is this woman? And then how does it get to this point? We got a phone call. Barbara's on her way back. You only have 45 minutes. And I did not want to see Barbara, and I didn't want Barbara to see me because it felt a little bit too - too invasive. I had 45 large black trash bags that were just sitting out on the front lawn. And I was sweeping all of this stuff up and then I saw this chair and I was, like, oh my God. OK so I haven't gotten underneath his chair. I have to get under there. I lifted up the chair and then there are 50 greeting cards down there. And I opened up one of them and it said I'm so sorry for your loss. And I opened up another one and it said the same thing. It said I'm so sorry for your loss.

And then, you know, I continued and opened up all of them. They're all very similar. The final one, though, said I know you loved him more than anything else in the world. And there are about 10 blank notebooks there and I opened up all of them through and there was nothing. And then the bottom one, there was a single poem. I can't remember all of the words, but I remember the end and the beginning were the same and it said why did you leave me? And I saw those greeting cards and those notebooks and I didn't throw them away. It was the one thing I didn't throw away. I just put the chair over them and I pushed it back to the wall and I just left it there for her. I got out of her house right before she got there. I saw the back of her head in the car when it pulled up. And then I drove away very quickly. Putting these puzzle pieces together, this woman who loved this man so much, apparently losing him in this fire in her house. I realized that I didn't have anything that was heavy enough for me to hold onto, for me to keep in my life, something that meant that much to me - except for this man that I love who felt really, really heavy in my heart.

And I ran away from him. And so I needed to go back. And I packed up everything that I had from that cabin and I drove all the way across the country to Portland, Oregon to be with him. And that box, that small box of pictures and mementos - those things that I left with my friend. I went back and I picked those up. And when I was looking through them, suddenly this picture caught my eye. It was the man I just moved to Portland to be with in the photo. In the future when maybe I'm old and I'm senile and a woman has to be hired to come and clean my house, if she finds this photo in all of my things, then I want her to know its weight and its gravity and I want her to save it for me because it's the heaviest thing that I own.

WASHINGTON: Thanks so much, April Wolfe. And good news, Snappers, April and her man are still going strong. April is currently working on a short film called "Widowers." You can find her writing online. We're going to have a link on our site, snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Stephanie Foo.

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